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Five pathways to understand the nature of loneliness

One of the ways to understand the nature of loneliness is to answer the question: what is its opposite?


Below I provide five answers to this question by exploring juxtaposition of loneliness to states of Lonesomeness, Solitude, Creative non-conformism, Intimacy, and "Peak experiences" of self-actualization.

1. Megalomania and Loneliness of a Narcissus VS Lonesomeness. One of the first authors who wrote on loneliness and ideology in modern times and particularly emphasized connection between human loneliness, megalomania and political narcissism was  Gregory Zilboorg  (1890-1950). In January of 1938 in the journal The Atlantic Zilboorg explained how he sees difference between narcissistic loneliness and lonesomeness. Importantly for Gregory Zilboorg there is an intrusive innate relationship between loneliness, narcissism and hostility:

The term ‘narcissism’ does not mean mere selfishness, or egocentricity, as is assumed; it denotes specifically that state of mind, that spontaneous attitude of man, in which the individual himself happens to choose only himself instead of others as the object to love. Not that he does not love, or that he hates, others and wants everything for himself; but he is inwardly in love with himself and seeks everywhere for a mirror in which to admire and woo his own image. Narcissus had no feeling for the pool in which he saw his own image; he probably even failed to notice the water lilies or the tadpoles or the fishes; they were there, but not as objects to be observed and perhaps be interested in, but only as a part of the setting which makes self-admiration so cozily possible. If the mirror reflects the man too truthfully, in a manner not entirely acceptable to his avowed principles of beauty, good ness, or decency, he resorts to the trick used by La Fontaine’s monkey and known in Freudian psychology as 'projection: he merely thinks that it is the image of one of his fellow men and laughs at it; in so doing he preserves intact the overvalued "fantasied’ image of himself which he loves and admires. This is the basic attitude of the narcissistic person in his relation to the world.

Being lonesome, missing someone we love, is quite different from the loneliness of a Narcissus who loses his pool. But what is the difference exactly? He who misses his friend or sweetheart misses that person not because he loves only himself, but because he loves his friend or sweetheart — that is, someone outside himself; his feeling of love is not directed inward, but outward. Being lonesome under these circumstances is a form of reaching out for the one we are missing. We then write a letter, send a telegram, talk over the telephone with our friend; we patiently wait for his or her return, or we gradually find other friends, other interests, other preoccupations. But even in this typo of ‘normal’ loneliness we may on closer inspection discern at the beginning the germ of narcissism. The shock of separation makes us at first lose interest in everything else; we withdraw emotionally from the outside world. We appear to need it no more, and even to resent it, for we are preoccupied with the contemplation of our own misery. Yet this type of loneliness, better called lonesomeness, is not a chronic state, and usually it is self-limited. I t does not require a doctor to be cured, for life itself, toward which the man who happens to be lonesome always turns, cures him sooner or later by what it has to offer.

It is quite obvious that this sense of egotistic desolation has nothing in common with the solitude that the scientist seeks in the isolation of his laboratory. (p. 47-48)

2. Lead by  Hannah Arendt , several authors believed that the opposite of loneliness can be Solitude.

Indeed, solitude and loneliness are often treated as polar opposites. The former is often considered to be a negative state, because it has to do with painful estrangement and a rejection of the individual. By contrast, the latter – solitude is not driven by estrangement, but rather a positive notion because through solitude we can gain more self-awareness or greater creativity. Therefore, unlike loneliness, we choose our solitude happily and voluntarily, because in solitude we are, according to Lord Byron, least alone.

Relying on Cicero, Hannah Arendt has explicitly drawn a difference between loneliness and solitude. Arendt argues that solitude requires being alone whereas loneliness shows itself most sharply in company of others: ‘The lonely man (eremos) finds himself surrounded by others with whom he cannot establish contact or to whose hostility he is exposed. The solitary man, on the contrary, is alone and therefore ‘can be together with himself’ since men have the capacity of ‘talking with themselves’. In solitude, in other words, I am ‘by myself,’ together with myself, and therefore two-in-one, whereas in loneliness I am actually one, deserted by all others.’ (Arendt, The origins of Totalitarianism, 1994: 476)

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Some scholars substitute the dichotomy between solitude and loneliness with a similar juxtaposition between ‘loneliness’ and ‘aloneness,’ agreeing that a person who is alone does not feel abandoned, and is rather full of energy and enthusiasm, openminded, and optimistic. At the same time, the lonely person feels rejected, his/her emotions are labile, fluctuating and charged with poor self-esteem (more on that see Akopov 2020).

3. The opposite to loneliness is a creative non-conformism.


Already in 1934 in his book The Self and the World of Objects. Experience of Philosophy of Solitude and Society, Russian existential philosopher  Nicolas Berdyaev  has conceptualized four models of overcoming loneliness anxiety in society. Berdyaev himself lived according to the fourth model – “I am lonely, but I am also social.” This fourth model is associated by him with the role of someone whom he called “the prophet.” Such people, wrote Berdyaev, are creative initiators, innovators, reformers, revolutionaries of the spirit: “This prophetical type is in conflict with the religious or social collective, it is almost never in harmony with the social environment, with public opinion (ibid). Unsurprisingly some of these creative “individuals-prophets” end up in a conflict with social conformism.

In 1961,  Clark Moustakas , one of the pioneers of the existential psychology of loneliness, distinguished between productive ‘true loneliness’ and ‘negative loneliness.’ While the former is equivalent to our earlier definition of solitude, the latter is characterized as ‘loneliness anxiety’ and is accompanied by a system of defense mechanisms that distract people from dealing with their crucial life questions. Instead, loneliness anxiety motivates people to constantly seek activity with others (Moustakas & Moustakas, 2004). Counterintuitively, public gatherings in large crowds may not be the most effective ways of coping with loneliness. Crowds can become lonely as well, and ‘lonely crowd’ societies are usually characterized by a high level of conformity and ‘other-directed people’ (Riesman et al., 2001). Robert Putnam has perceptively noted that, while people are now bowling more than in the 1950s, there are fewer bowling leagues in the USA today than there used to be 50 years ago. So now Americans do more bowling, but they do their ‘bowling alone’ (Putnam, 2000).

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4. The opposite to loneliness can be Intimacy.


American expert in loneliness studies  Ben Mijoskovic  suggests that the theme of human loneliness can be addressed in two quite different directions, either in individual and personal terms or in group and social terms. Therefore, loneliness is much more than just feeling sad or isolated. It is the ultimate ground source of unhappiness—the underlying reality of all negative human behavior that manifests as anxiety, depression, envy, guilt, hostility, or shame. For Mijoskovic loneliness human underlies aggression, domestic violence, murder, suicide, and other serious issues. He suggests that all human beings gravitate between two motivational poles: loneliness and intimacy. Moreover, the drive to avoid loneliness and secure intimacy is our most powerful psychological need.

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In his recent book The Philosophical Roots of Loneliness and Intimacy: Political Narcissism and the Problem of Evil (2021) Mijoskovic elaborates what he means by intimacy:

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Today, there is an increasing pandemic of global loneliness, which only promises to exponentially overwhelm us. Politically, many countries, large and small, like the US and Hungary, are xenophobically trying to close their borders in order to promote ethnic and nationalistic intimacy. The efforts will simply fail because of the insatiable appetite for narcissism now developing in the atomistic transiency of the world’s population. In the end, I leave it to the judicious reader to choose which principle and model of personal identity best addresses my universal theme of existential loneliness. (p.40) …

…I believe that genuine intimacy is only attainable between individuals and small groups brought together by a mutual and reciprocal sharing of empathic feelings, meanings, and affections leading to more stable and permanent mutual state of reciprocal intimacy, through shared trust, respect, and values. But because there are eight billion—and exponentially counting—rootless and lost creatures aimlessly and ceaselessly circulating throughout the globe, the unrealistic ideal of “national” unities and the impossibility of forming any viable sense of organic communions will inevitably continue to increase and prevail. Our current situation is much like when the Roman Republic devolved into the Empire; it was too large and too various to form a unity. At that point, the only possibility of intimacy became reduced to restrictive psychological and ethical isles of friendship. Both Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, Books VIII and IX, and the Alexandrian Epicureans extolled the values of small and closed friendships. A global fellowship of human equality and respect is a complete pipe dream (p.121).

5. Interesting research comes from humanistic psychology explorations of the relationship between loneliness and self-actualization. According to Abraham Maslow’s works, perhaps, the opposite to loneliness can be the so-called “peak experiences.” Abraham Maslow defined self-actualization to be self-fulfillment, the tendency for the individual to become actualized in what he is potentially. “This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming,” “the full realization of one's potential" and of one's "true self” (Theory of Human Motivation, 1943). In his late work Maslow also believed that many self-actualized people are on the path toward “self-transcendence.” Maslow described self-transcendence as a higher state in which people see beyond their own concerns and perspectives, achieving a state of feeling at one with the world and those in it.

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Modern psychologist Kendra Cherry writes of “peak experiences” as the most wonderful experiences of our life — those moments of ecstasy and complete and utter happiness. This can be when you are in a creative moment, reading a book, watching a movie, or falling in love. “You may feel a sense of "being hit" by a particular creative work in a way that strikes an emotional chord inside of you (Peak Experiences in Psychology, 2023).


How to stop being lonely and achieve self-actualization? In addition to those that were originally proposed by Maslow, modern researchers have expanded on these traits and suggested other personality traits that are also connected to self-actualization. Cherry believes that human autonomy, privacy, and sense of humour also play an important role in achieving “peak experiences” and personal growth, together with other characteristics, for example on the picture below.

If you still feel yourself lonely, you can, for example, try to take one of Scott Kaufman’s free self-actualization tests, given that Kaufman has updated Maslow’s theory and came up with a 30-item “Characteristics of Self-Actualization Scale (CSAS)”.

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